Taking pictures of food has never been easier. But, when it comes to taking really good pictures of food, it’s not quite as easy to do. If you want to improve your food images, it’s important to revisit the basics and start with the food photography fundamentals.
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Food Photography Fundamentals: The Creative Side
There are two sides to the food photography fundamentals: the creative side and the technical side. A lot of people get stuck on the technical side, which is understandable. Photography requires equipment and it’s important to know how to use your equipment.
But, the thing to keep in mind is that the creative side plays the leading role in your food photography. The technical side is there to support it. If you don’t think through the creative side first, the technical side doesn’t really serve a purpose besides just taking a picture. When you take the time to figure out the what you want your images to look like, you can make technical decisions to help you create that look.
The creative fundamentals include:
- CREATIVE VISION
- FOOD STYLING
- PROPS & SURFACES
What do you want your images to look like?
The very first step when thinking about food photography ideas is to figure out what you want your images to look like. When you figure out your creative vision, it will help guide the rest of the creative decisions you need to make about the food styling, props & surfaces and composition.
A good exercise to help you figure out your creative vision is to find images that inspire you. What is it about them that you like? What is about them that you don’t like? Do you prefer light and airy food images or dark and moody food images? Do you like seeing images that are more polished and perfect or more rustic and natural? Your creative vision could be the same for each food shoot or it could change depending on what food you’re shooting and the story you’re trying to tell.
HOW TO PLAN AHEAD
There are two things you can do to plan ahead for your creative vision:
- FIND IMAGES THAT INSPIRE YOU AND CREATE A MOOD BOARD
- WRITE OUT YOUR SHOT LIST
Mood boards are a collection of images, textures and colors that will help guide your creative vision.
Your shot list is a list of the shots you want to get.
Both your mood boards and your shot list will help keep you organized and on track so your photo shoots can be comes more efficient and successful.
How will you plate the food for the camera?
Food photography and food styling go hand-in-hand. If the food doesn’t look good, the image won’t look good. If the food looks good, but is shot poorly, the image won’t look good.
Figuring out the food styling approach really depends on what food you’ll be working with. Many foods have different “personalities” when it comes to the best way to plate it for the camera. The only way to really get to know your food is to get your hands dirty in the kitchen and start working with it.
HOW TO PLAN AHEAD
The way to plan ahead for your food styling includes thinking about the following:
- WHAT IS THE FOOD’S PERSONALITY?
- WHAT DO YOU WANT TO HIGHLIGHT ABOUT THE FOOD?
- ALL FOOD IS TIME SENSITIVE. HOW LONG CAN IT SIT BEFORE IT STARTS TO LOOK BAD?
- DO YOU NEED ANY SPECIAL TOOLS TO HELP YOU KEEP THE FOOD LOOKING FRESH?
- MAKE SURE YOU ARE ALL SET UP AND READY TO SHOOT BEFORE YOUR FOOD COMES OUT.
- ADD ANY SPECIAL FOOD STYLING NOTES TO YOUR SHOT LIST.
READ MORE ABOUT: FOOD STYING TOOLS EVERY FOOD PHOTOGRAPHER SHOULD HAVE
Props & Surfaces
What props and surfaces will help bring your creative vision to life?
After the creative vision and food styling is clear, figuring out your food photography props and surfaces is a fun next step.
Props are your plates, bowls, linens and glassware. When it comes to what props to get for your shoot, think about your creative vision. Do you need darker props? Or, more colorful props? Remember, the props are there to support the creative vision. They should not distract from the food. A pro tip is to avoid shiny things, because they create a lot of unwanted reflections that can be very tricky to clean up during post-production/editing.
READ MORE ABOUT: PROPS FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Surfaces sit beneath the food and set the foundation for your image. Backdrops sit behind your food to help create a less distracting background. When it comes to choosing your surfaces and backdrops, refer to your mood boards for your creative vision. If you know you want to shoot a dark and moody look, you will want to look for darker surfaces to help bring that mood to life. If you are shooting a fresh and bright look, you may want to use brighter, more colorful surfaces.
When choosing surfaces, consider the following:
The vendor I recommend the most is Best Ever Backdrops.
HOW TO PLAN AHEAD
The best way to plan ahead for sourcing your props and surfaces is to be sure you have the time to get what you need before your photo shoot.
READ MORE ABOUT: THE BEST BACKDROPS FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
How will you arrange elements in the frame?
Food photography composition is how you arrange your food and props in the frame. Composition definitely requires some practice and there are four things to take into consideration:
The orientation of your images refers to them being shot vertically or horizontally. Where do you plan to publish or share your images? For example, a horizontal orientation works best for the homepage of a website viewed on a computer. A vertical orientation works best for Instagram Stories. I think it’s best to try and capture both, so you have enough to work with for the variety of media sizes.
There are three very popular angles in food photography including:
- STRAIGHT ON
- 3/4 ANGLE
Which angle to choose really depends on what angle will highlight the details of the food the best. Many times food can be shot from a variety of angles, not just one.
There are several different ways to arrange your food in the frame. A good starting point is to make sure you use the grid on your camera. The grid is composed of two vertical lines and two horizontal lines creating nine squares. Where the lines intersect is where you could consider placing the subject. This is known as the Rule of Thirds and can be a great guide to get you experimenting with different arrangements and placements of the food.
Experimenting with colors can be a lot of fun to help bring more visual interest to your compositions. There are several color theories out there, so it may seem a little confusing to know where to start when it comes to color combinations. Three popular color theories are:
Complimentary colors are colors that sit directly opposite each other on the color wheel. These colors create more contrast and are good for a more bold look.
Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel. These are more soothing color combinations, because the colors sort of feel like they belong to the same family.
Monochromatic is a color scheme made up of one color, but in different shades, ranging from light to dark.
HOW TO PLAN AHEAD
The best way to plan ahead for your compositions is to start experimenting. It can be helpful to place your props in different arrangements before your food comes out so you can see what might look best ahead of time.
READ MORE ABOUT: FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY COMPOSITION TIPS
Food Photography Fundamentals: The Technical Side
Figuring out the creative fundamentals first will help you figure out the technical fundamentals much easier. The technical fundamentals include:
- CAMERA SETTINGS
Are you shooting with natural light or artificial light?
Lighting will guide your technical decisions in the food photography fundamentals. Whether you shoot with natural light or artificial light, it requires you to think about what your light source is, where it’s coming from, how powerful it is and how to modify it to get the look you’re going for.
Natural light is the sunlight. It’s less gear and beautiful, but it does have its limitations.
First, if you’re using natural light, you have to set up next to a window. If you want to adjust where your light is hitting your subject you have to physically move your subject or your table.
Second, natural light is always changing and you have to adjust your camera settings to accommodate that. It can be a little tedious on set if you’re not as familiar with how to adjust your camera settings.
Third, if you’re depending on the sun for your light, you are limited to daylight hours only, which isn’t much time during the winter months. This also can be problematic if you’re shooting in a restaurant without much natural light to work with.
However, there are some tools to help you modify your natural light including:
Sometimes the light coming in from the window is too harsh. A diffusor will help soften that light as it pours in through the window. Simply place it over your window and watch the light soften and spread out more evenly over the food.
BLACK FOAM BOARD
Black foam board can help with emphasizing contrast and shadows. Play around with the placement of black foam boards and watch how it affects the shadows of your food.
WHITE FOAM BOARD
White foam board well help bounce light back to an area of your food that may have become too dark. For example, if your window is on the left side of your food, the left side will be well lit. The right side, however, may get a little dark. If you place the white foam board on the right side of the food, you’ll see the light bounce back and add a little more light to brighten things up.
READ MORE ABOUT: NATURAL LIGHT FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
Shooting with artificial light is a little more gear to consider, but it gives you a lot more control over your lighting. Some benefits include:
- ABILITY TO CONTROL THE POSITION OF THE LIGHT
- ABILITY TO CONTROL THE POWER OF THE LIGHT
- THE POWER OF THE LIGHT IS CONSISTENT
- YOU CAN SHOOT ANYWHERE AND AT ANY TIME OF DAY
Diffusers and foam boards are great light modifiers for both natural and artificial light. And, with artificial light, you also more modifiers to experiment with like umbrellas, soft boxes, gels and grids.
I have a much more detailed blog post that walks you through how to get started with artificial lighting linked below.
READ MORE ABOUT: GETTING STARTED WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS
What equipment do you need to help you during your photo shoot?
There’s a lot of equipment on the market and knowing what to get can be tricky at first. Knowing the type of lighting your working with is a good first step to figuring out what else you might need. And, the next best step is to start taking pictures. You’ll soon discover what’s working and what isn’t working for your workflow. Take your time with investing in different gear, because it doesn’t make sense to invest in too much too soon.
What will your camera settings be for the best exposure?
Your camera settings play a big role in the food photography fundamentals. No matter what camera you use, whether it’s a DSLR, mirrorless camera or an iPhone camera, being able to adjust the camera’s exposure settings is incredibly important to achieve the look you want. Your camera’s exposure is controlled by the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
DSLR & MIRRORLESS CAMERAS
To adjust your DSLR or mirrorless camera settings, you have to set it to Manual Mode. I have a post that dives deeper into this below. My favorite part about this post is that it shares poorly exposed images and how to fix them. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re new to Manual Mode.
READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO SHOOT IN MANUAL MODE
If you’re shooting with an iPhone, you can control your camera settings through a free app called Lightroom Mobile. This app pretty much turns your iPhone into a mini DSLR, which is a great way to improve your iPhone food photography.
HOW TO ACCESS YOUR IPHONE CAMERA SETTINGS IN LIGHTROOM MOBILE
- When you launch LR Mobile, it will default to Auto in the lower left corner of your screen.
- Tap Auto and it will pull up a menu that offers another option called Professional.
- Select Professional.
- You’ll now have access to more your iPhones camera settings including: Exposure, Shutter Speed, ISO, White Balance and Manual Focus.
READ MORE ABOUT: LIGHTROOM MOBILE FOR IPHONE FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
How will you edit your images to bring them to their final form?
When it comes to the food photography fundamentals, editing is a big (and fun) part of the process. Editing is truly the icing on the cake, because it brings your images to their final form. Without editing, your images can appear flat and incomplete.
No matter what camera you’re using, there are endless techniques when it comes to editing. Sometimes the slightest editing adjustments can go a long way and other times, you need to do more extensive editing to finalize your images.
Much like all of the fundamentals, editing takes practice as well. You’ll discover some really cool techniques and different ways to make some beautiful adjustments to your images.
COMPUTER EDITING SOFTWARE
If you’re editing on a computer, I recommend the following editing software:
- CAPTURE ONE
IPHONE EDITING APPS
If you’re editing with an iPhone, I recommend the following editing apps:
- LIGHTROOM MOBILE
I hope this post demonstrated that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes with food photography. Planning ahead and exploring how the food photography fundamentals play a role in your photo shoot will help you improve your food images significantly. Reach out with questions anytime!
This post contains affiliate links which means if you click or make a purchase through my site, I might make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). I only promote products and equipment that I actually use and support.
All images ©Regan Baroni 2022.